Vigilante Justice


When morning came, the Bulletin appeared with its editorial column, King’s personal precinct, dramatically blank. The top of the chief news column was almost as impressive in its brevity: “Mr. King has been disabled … from acting as editor of this paper. … Members of the Vigilance Committee met together and consulted on the best mode to be adopted, but no definite arrangements have been made.”

That evening Coleman was told that there was to be another meeting and that he must be there. He went and found a large number of men, the meeting already organized and discussion going on. “I remained in the background, listened attentively to all that was said, thought seriously of the business, and was asked to speak.” He was urged to reconsider his refusal to head the new committee and was swayed by the argument that if he would “start the thing” others would then take over. Finally he agreed, and the next morning a notice appeared in the Alta and the Herald .

The Committee of Vigilance. The members of the Vigilance Committee in good standing will please meet at 105½ Sacramento this day, Thursday, 15, at nine o’clock A.M. By order of the Committee of Thirteen.

Long before nine o’clock the next morning the old Know-Nothing Hall on Sacramento Street was filled to capacity.

Coleman addressed the meeting. He said he would take charge if he were left free to choose the first council of the committee himself. This was agreed. He then asked those present to vacate the hall and said, “In a short time the books will be ready for enrollment.”

Coleman insisted that the organization must be “very close, very guarded. We must be very careful whom we admit.” That was his reason for adjourning the meeting. He wanted to check over the bona fides of every man already sworn to membership and to go equally thoroughly into the records and loyalties of each of the hundreds of new applicants. He wrote out a new and drastic oath of fealty to the committee, first took it himself, and then personally swore in all over again each of the trusted dozen he had kept with him on adjourning the meeting. This was the original “Committee of Thirteen.”

Some applicants were rejected. Every man who was accepted was sworn in individually. Each new member then signed the book and was allotted his number. Enrollment went on all day, and the committee had to move to the Turnverein Hall, which was larger. Some thirty-five hundred men were enrolled within two days, and later estimates of the total membership ran as high as eight thousand.

At eight o’clock on May 15 Coleman addressed the entire membership. He said that armed companies of one hundred each would be formed immediately under a Vigilante named Doane as chief marshal, and that each company would elect its own officers, subject to executive approval.

Coleman then reported that the committee had secured several thousand muskets, with bayonets. (These came from George Law, who had bought them for a filibustering expedition that had not come off. Later the committee would add to its arsenal more than twenty cannon, given, lent, or sold by sympathetic masters of ships in the bay.) Everything proceeded in a quiet and orderly way, and some two thousand men were organized into sixteen companies, officers selected, and drill, with muskets, promptly begun under Chief Marshal Doane. Many other men waited for assignment to duty or for acceptance into membership.


Night was close to morning, and Coleman and his lieutenants were still hard at work in the headquarters of the Vigilance Committee. They had been at it almost continuously since the morning after King was shot, and in that time they had accomplished near miracles. They had organized a committee, established adequate headquarters, closely checked and sworn in some thirty-five hundred volunteers, created an armed force of over two thousand men, staffed it, drilled it, and provided it with excellent muskets and some cannon, and, somehow, found funds to finance all this. Nothing on such a scale had been attempted by the 1851 committee. They had every right to be exhausted.

But there was still much to do, and none of it could wait. There were questions of the committee’s relations to the people of the city, for upon the clear support of the majority of the citizens rested the moral justification of the Vigilantes.

There were questions of politics and security. The committee must be certain whom it could count upon, who were its open enemies and how great was their power, and who were its smiling secret underminers. One false step, one misplaced trust, one serious leak of Vigilante plans, and the committee would be finished.

There were questions, too, of strategy and tactics. If, as the people obviously expected, Casey and Cora were to be tried by the committee, its first step was to secure the persons of the two murderers. That could not be done by guile, for the sheriff and his supporters were forewarned and alert. If it must be done by force, that meant an open attack on constituted authority—civil war in San Francisco.